Arabia 3D: Film Review

An impressive though decidedly non-political look at a region that movie crews seldom if ever visit

In a mere 45 minutes, veteran Imax filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, manages to suggest the wonder and breadth of the human, physical and cultural experience that is Saudi Arabia.

As movie sets go, you can’t beat the Arabian Peninsula. And Arabia 3D has this movie set all to itself. The film is not only in 3D and in Imax’s large screen format, but this evidently is the first major production filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. (To answer that question which just arose in your mind, Lawrence of Arabia was shot mostly in Spain and Morocco but not one frame in Arabia itself.) No doubt tempering the joy veteran large-screen director Greg MacGillivray must have felt with a whole country and 2,000 years of Arabian civilization at his fingertips was the daunting challenge that he has to cover the subject in only 45 minutes.

It’s a struggle but MacGillivray, editor Stephen Judson and writer Jack Stephens at least manage to suggestthe wonder and breadth of the human, physical and cultural experience that is Arabia. Plus there are certain sequences, most notably the Hajj, where three million Muslim pilgrims come annually to Mecca to reaffirm their faith, and a dive into the Red Sea to examine ancient shipwrecks, that only Imax 3D can capture so thrillingly.

This is a film consciously made without any political context. No doubt MacGillivray would argue that he means his film to be an antidote to the image of fanatical Arabs seen in popular American movies. But the absence of anypolitical background to its portrayal of modern-day Saudi society gives a strikingly incomplete picture.

The closest the film comes to stating that even by Arab and Islamic standards, Saudi Arabia is, shall we say, a wee bit conservative comes in the statement that as far as some of its female citizens are concerned, “change is too slow.”

The film concentrates on the two “golden ages” of Arabia. The first came with the almost-forgotten Nabataean civilization whose wealth was founded on trade with Romans in frankincense and spices. Contact with Roman civilization brought back construction and architecture knowledge that allowed this still-mysterious desert tribe to build stone cities and tombs that are only now being excavated by Dr. Daifallah Al-Talhi.

The second golden age, which coincided with Europe’s so-called Dark Age, includes the cultural, scientific, intellectual and philosophical discoveries by the Islamic Empire that stretched east and west into Asia and Africa. This era represented the absolute flowering of Arab civilization that is basis for much in our modern world.

Today with riches flowing from oil and booming cities whose buildings reach for the heavens in places where Bedouin tents existed only a few decades earlier, the film wonders if a third golden age lies in Saudi Arabia’s future. The answer to that, of course, can’t be assessed without reference to political realities the film so studiously avoids.

To put a human face on a film about a nation, Arabia 3D uses the sometimes-awkward devise of seeing Saudi Arabia through the eyes of Hamzah Jamjoom. The young man studied film at Chicago’s DePaul University and supposedly he is now returning home to make a one-man film with a small camera to reveal the beauties of its traditions and heritage. All the while, an Imax crew — that needs four of its members to lift the 300-pound Imax 3D camera — just happens to tag along.

He meets with a falconer, the archeologist, a woman writer named Nimah Nawwaband his own family in hit-and-run scenes that don’t give much of a feeling for anyone.

Much better are the film’s giant-screen views of the exotic peninsula’s wilderness and vast cities. The Imax camera in a helicopter drifts over these landscapes, then maneuvers through traffic and crowds of people. Well-staged scenes and even brief animation ably fill you in on the region’s 2,000-year history.

The 3D here is a thing of sheer beauty under water or roaming the desert. When the camera pulls back, as it must for the Hajj or the cityscapes of Riyadh and Jeddah, the 3D loses much of its effectiveness.

A brilliant musical score by Steve Wood, combining Arabian melodies with western tonalities, lends just the right exotic spice to the amazing images.

Helen Mirren acts as narrator although her voice is often superceded by the young filmmaker and other commentators.

Opens: May 27 in Los Angeles (MacGillivray Freeman Films)
Production companies: MacGillivray Freeman Films in association with the Royal Geographical Society, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Screenwriter: Jack Stephens
Producers: Greg MacGillivray, Mark Krenzien
Narrator: Helen Mirren
Director of photography: Brad Ohlund
Music: Steve Wood
Editor: Stephen Judson
No rating, 45 minutes